With less than a month to go until Austria takes over the OSCE chairmanship from Germany, top officials gathered in Austria to discuss the future of European security.

An OSCE observer near a monument damaged in a shelling attack on the village of Zaitsevo, Donetsk region, Ukraine. Photo: TASS

Ahead of Austria’s chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2017, diplomats, military officers and experts gathered in Vienna this week to discuss the current state of European security. The primary focus was what the OSCE, with Austria as its chairman, could do to improve the European security environment.

An all-day workshop, “The Future of Peace and Security: The role of the OSCE,” was held behind closed doors at the historic Defense Academy (Landesverteidigungsakademie). The event was co-organized together with a number of leading Austrian political research institutions: Research Center for Eurasian Studies at Vienna University, the Social-Democratic Party’s Karl Renner Institute, International Peace Institute, Austrian Institute for International Policy, as well as the German Social Democrats’ Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

On Dec. 8 and 9, the OSCE’s Ministerial Council will gather in Hamburg to conclude the year of German chairmanship and pass the baton over to Austria. In recent years, the OSCE has tried to ensure more continuity and had countries come up with a joint agenda. Such was the case with the Swiss (2014) and Serbian (2015) chairmanship. Germany and Austria have also vowed to ensure close coordination.

However, when the conference on Nov. 14 opened up to the media and public in the evening, nothing was said about the results of the German year at the helm of the OSCE. Instead, the participants painted a rather grim picture of the current state of European security, called for a greater involvement of Russia in it and were careful not to raise the expectations of the Austrian chairmanship too high.

However, given the OSCE Secretariat’s location in the Austrian capital city of Vienna and the country’s traditional support for the organization, having an effective chairmanship will be a matter of prestige. As a neutral country traditionally dedicated to maintaining an equal relationship with the East and West of Europe, Austria was taking its responsibility seriously, participants said.

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European security in crisis

The commander of the Defense Academy, Lieutenant-General Erich Csitkowits, described in his opening remarks the European security system as experiencing difficult times, facing both transnational terrorism and a global migration crisis, hybrid threats and “inefficiency of existing security institutions which depend on the decisions of a few countries.”

“Thus the Ukraine crisis became possible, not the least because of the inefficiency of the pan-European conflict management system. All these problems can be tackled only by a joint effort,” the military official said.

Such a joint effort is severely complicated by the loss of trust, said Ambassador Christian Strohal, the Austrian Foreign Ministry’s special advisor for OSCE Chairmanship. Whereas the short Russia-Georgia war in 2008 was seen as “an accident that could be repaired with the appropriate instruments” after the annexation of Crimea the situation has deteriorated radically, he said.

“The different truths that are being used to describe the situation and the loss of trust are something that we need to deal with at the OSCE on the daily basis. The principles enshrined in the Charter of Paris seem to be lost,” he said. As a result, the OSCE would need to launch a “comprehensive security dialogue” and find new forms of discussion that would be adapted to the current situation.

Resolve your own conflict

Florian Raunig, head of the Austrian Foreign Ministry’s task force for the OSCE Chairmanship, emphasized that consensus of the 57 participating states is simultaneously a strength and a weakness of the OSCE. “Right now it’s almost impossible to find consensus. But the moment you reach it – it’s cast in stone, it’s strength,” he said.

Thus, he sees Austria’s role primarily as facilitator of the atmosphere, in which participating states would be able to find a consensus. That would require “guidance” and some “super-ideas”. Yet Austria would not be able to provide the solutions. The conflicting parties would need to find them, with the chairmanship’s help.

He recalled a recent trip to the South Caucasus, where he asked diplomats what they expected of the Austrian OSCE chairmanship. “We expect you to resolve our conflict, we were told. No, you need to resolve your conflict! We will make sure, as much as possible, to create a certain atmosphere and maybe provide one idea or two, but the resolution of the conflict is up to you!” Raunig said.

According to him, Austria has determined three topics on which it will concentrate. One is the facilitation of dialogue and creation of the right atmosphere. The second is the involvement of civil societies – a topic on which, he thinks, it would be easy to establish consensus. And the third is to work on the re-establishment of trust within the organization. “And that is a pretty ambitious plan,” he said.

None of the speakers suggested that Austria should initiate the overhaul of the entire European security system – an issue that has remained on the agenda for quite a few years already and de facto failed as part of the so-called Helsinki +40 process, which was devised to reform the organization by the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act in 2015.

Greater role for Russia

Sergey Markedonov, associate professor of the Russian State University for the Humanities and expert of the Russian International Affairs Council, criticized the discussion for presuming that the European security crisis began in 2014. “It’s not true. We absolutely miss the crisis in the Balkans. We became witnesses of two collapses – Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R. We have a paradox; Westerners hate Stalinism but respect borders conceived and realized by Stalin. Practically all speakers here ignored the positive role of Russia in conflict resolution, especially in the area of the former U.S.S.R.,” Markedonov said.

According to him, the key problem lies in the fact that Russia was never treated as an equal partner in the construction of the post-Cold War security structure in Europe.

“We did not receive real equality in the European security architecture, because the old-style principle 'Russia out, U.S. in, Germany down' prevailed. Russia in, not Russia out! We are a European country and historically we played an important role in the European security architecture,” Markedonov said.

He also pointed to the fact that many of the current trends and attitudes in Russian foreign policy originated long before President Vladimir Putin and were articulated in the 1990s by President Boris Yeltsin and other Russian leaders, including those with liberal and pro-Western credentials such as Anatoly Chubais, but were never heard and properly taken into account by the West.

Brigadier Gustav Gustenau of the Bureau for Security Policy of the Austrian Ministry of Defense, liaison officer to the National Security Council, told the audience about the recent yet unpublished survey which tested the Austrians’ attitude to the role of Russia and the United States in European security system.

"Austrians for the most part believe that Europe in the past, when it came to peace and order, was geared too much to the U.S. and didn't really involve Russia. Austrians believe that Russia should be more involved. Austrians also believe that the EU foreign policy toward Russia has been quite bad. And yes, people also want the sanctions to go away step by step,” he said. People also tend blame first and foremost the United States for the chaotic developments in today’s world, followed by Russia and Turkey.

“Whatever we do, we must consider a more inclusive role for Russia in the European security architecture,” Brigadier Gustenau said. He stressed, however, that the Austrian Defense Ministry has no communications channels to the Russian Defense Ministry. As for the OSCE, it is also at the periphery of the country’s security policy, which is concentrated on the European Union.

According to Gustenau, Austria presently has 20 officers as observers in Ukraine, one military expert in Armenia and 10 in Moldova. When and if the international community decides on a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, Austria would need to contribute more significant military personnel.

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Austria’s experience of neutrality

But the area where the country can be most helpful in managing potential conflict is to offer its experience of neutrality. Moldova has approached Austria to offer expertise on neutrality, he said, and there will be several conferences on this subject next year. Pervious attempt by the Austrian Foreign Ministry to offer consultations on neutrality to Ukraine was not of interest for the Ukrainian authorities back in 2014, the Austrian Foreign Ministry said at the time.

“Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina  - there are a number of countries that are now sitting on the fence, that have expressed interest (in neutrality). We should talk to them, and the overarching issue should be European security architecture. We’ll see if the OSCE is the appropriate frame for that,” Gustenau said.

Answering a question from the audience on whether the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. President can offer an opportunity to improve the European security climate by mending U.S.-Russia ties, Markedonov offered a cautious answer.

“If Mr. Trump is ready to start discussions, psychologically it is a good point because, unlike Mrs. Clinton, he demonstrated his readiness to do so,” the Russian expert said. “But I am not so naïve to say that Mr. Trump, taking into account certain groups within the Republican party, lobbyist structures, Democrats and half of the voters who did not vote for him, will break all the negative trends immediately the day after inauguration. It’s a process. But we should start this process,” Markedonov added.